“Let every man praise the bridge that carries him over”
Once upon a time, long before St Margarets was even a twinkle in an estate agent’s eye, a road ran through these parts from Twickenham to Isleworth alongside the Thames. When it reached the River Crane just outside Old Isleworth, at a place called Railshead, there was a footbridge for the use of travellers. 600 years on and the bridge at Railshead still stands, bigger and stronger than it ever was, but still serving its original purpose, to help travellers on their way. Without realising it the bridge has probably helped you on your way as well.
‘Railshead’ can be traced back to 1408. It takes its name from the rows of stakes or ‘rails’ hammered into the Thames by local landowners to build Isleworth Weir – used for catching lampreys, a delicacy of the time. Boatmen, working from the busy wharves at Isleworth, complained that the weir was an obstruction to navigation and in 1538 it was pulled down. In 1547 a new weir was erected by the Duke of Somerset, who had recently taken possession of Syon Monastery. Undaunted, in 1549 the same boatmen petitioned the City of London’s Court of Aldermen to remove this weir as well. Their complaint was “The hindrance to the passage of river craft due to the yearly driving in of great pules or postes with great hurdells into the ground.”
The boatmen were recommended “to make their humble suit to His Grace and in case they were not holpen (helped) thereby that they should repair hither again for their further aid”. At the same time the Court of Alderman reminded the Duke of Somerset that there were statues forbidding his encroachment into the river. It didn’t seem to stop him. The complaints about illegal weirs continued into the reign of Elizabeth 1st, including yet another one built by the Duke of Somerset in 1578. (Actually ‘Good Queen Bess’ was a lamprey fan herself and in 1580 licensed her own weirs along the Thames to provide the royal household with “lampreys and roches”.) Ralph Treswell’s map of 1607 shows a semi-circle of stakes still remaining across the river but by 1630 the weir had been removed. In Moses Glover’s map of 1635 only the name “Rayles Head” remains. Surprisingly to this day there are still a few stakes to be found embedded in the river.
In 1670 Charles II gave £50 to one “Baker, Justice of the Peace for Middlesex” towards the erection of a coach bridge of brick “at a place called the Rails Head at Thistleworth.” During the 18th century this bridge was constantly being repaired and rebuilt by the parish and at one stage was even kept locked to reduce wear and tear! Around 1832 the old riverside road from Twickenham to Isleworth was closed to make room for the construction of Isleworth House – “fitted up in admirable style” – and its extensive grounds which were to extend down to the river. In its place a new road was built, slightly inland, and following the path of the present St Margarets Road. Along with the new highway a new and substantial Railshead Bridge was built. An official record describes it as:-
Pink-yellow stock brick, stone and render parapet cill with cast iron strapping. Single span with plat-band over a double arch of brick. The parapets curve out at either end, and terminate in cylindrical piers…. The bridge, very much in the Georgian tradition… is one of a number of historic crossings in this area. The later C19 strapping to the parapet is itself of interest, as are the cast iron Middlesex County Council plaques, warning bill-stickers of prosecution.
Railshead Bridge, with its original brick arch and iron strapped parapet, still carries the main St Margarets to Isleworth road over the Crane, just as it has done for the past 180 years. It is of such a modest design that hundreds cross it every day without realising that they have done so… which is probably the most that you can of any bridge.
— from Martyn Day